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The Civil Wars - Appeal to the better angels of our nature
on 7 February 2011
A trip to Memphis Tennessee a few years back continues to pay dividends and can I thank a number of American friends for this recommendation. The Civil Wars are a duo consisting of John Paul White, hailing from Florence, Alabama and Joy Williams, originally from Santa Cruz, CA, but now residing in East Nashville. They have already altruistically shared a free concert album "Live at Eddie's attic" which remains available on their My Space site for those of you seeking fine new music and now we have this wonderful debut album "Barton Hollow" to delight our aural senses. The word which best epitomises this record is "passionate". Check out the performance of the swampy folk title track they unveiled on the Jay Leno show and try not to be smitten by its drive and force. There certainly is a kind of "mixed doubles" Avett Brothers quality to their music but equally, the duo evokes the fine pedigree of a Welch and Rawlings with their great singing voices and haunting melodies.
At the heart of "Barton Hollow" is the songwriting and none is finer that the brilliant alt-country ballad "Poison and Wine" possibly the finest song I have heard this year and one you should send out a search party to locate. It builds slowly and deliberately and the vocals of White, in particular, resonate with emotion, building to a lovely climax. Opener "20 years" harks bark to that great forgotten American duo the Swell Season and is a heartbreaking country lament destined to take Nashville by storm. It is a song that Emmylou Harris should record immediately. "The girl with the red balloon" has an ancient quality about it which the Fleet Foxes tapped into on their eponymous debut, while the haunting instrumental "Violet Hour" repays repeated plays. Anyone who listens to the beautiful "Falling" where this time Williams emerges as a true star, is destined to emerge with a broken heart, ditto the wistful "To whom it may concern" a rolling acoustic ballad so light it could be lifted by a breeze. All this points to the chemistry between the two singers which must suggest more than a platonic friendship bearing in mind the intensity they whip up on songs like the pure Nashville orientated "Forget me not" which had this reviewer daydreaming of fond memories of the Parsons and Harris classic partnership. A debut this good deserves wider recognition not least in recent years since like-minded bands who have ploughed this furrow such as the Everbodyfields, Bowerbirds, Anthony Da Costa and Abby Gardner have not achieved their just desserts. The Civil Wars have been described as the coolest duo since the White Stripes an unfair comparison since they work in very different traditions. That said anyone who listens to the Civil Wars brilliant cover of the Jackson 5's "I want you back" must regret that they are not a public limited company since you will want a share of this action.
PS - their Oct 2011 performance on Jools Holland was scintillating including a cover of "Billie Jean" and a roaring version of this albums title track. Well worth seeking out.